Read Time:3 Minute, 47 Second

★★★★☆

Building bridges between the past, present and future of three Latinx teens in El Paso, Texas, Maisie Crow’s At the Ready investigates one of the US’s most contentious domestic issues – immigration across its southern border – from an unorthodox angle.

Cristina, César and Mason (who came out as transgender after filming and is referred to in the film as Kassy) live within sight of Mexico and attend, or have recently graduated from, Horizon High School. One of 900 institutions (in 2018) in the State to offer law enforcement education, students here learn the skills needed to join the Border Patrol, customs, DEA or police force.

Images of teens with hand guns roaming school corridors evoke bitter memories, but here fake sidearms accompany flak jackets worn as part of practical drills. Each with their own reasons for joining this unusual after school club, the trio are young, idealistic and see the collaborative teamwork of these sessions as a stepping stone to employment and a stable existence after graduation.

But for the guaranteed income, steady job and all the fun and games that recruitment drives promise, what would the reality be for them when patrolling the US/Mexico borderlands? Director and cinematographer Crow does not interject with question or comment at any point in At the Ready. However, it is clear from even the early exchanges that the Marfa, Texas-based filmmaker cares deeply for both her sophomore documentary’s core subject and her three chosen subjects. Their testimony and experiences break down common misconceptions about border control and a person’s motivations for seeking a new start in the United States.

“My dad came over here to have a better life,” says Cristina, whose father has spent twenty-five years driving a truck to support his family; Mason, living a very solitary life due to absent parents, sees the club as a way “to not feel lonely anymore;” César cares for his younger brother as his mother works, and wants to become a police officer – perhaps in an effort to avoid or atone for the mistakes of his own father. It is apparent, then, that what drives these soon to be young adults is far more than financial stability.

Herein lies the internal/external conflict that each must overcome. Crow gives a very real and human face to an issue that many dismiss all too easily and that certainly, come election day, vehemently divides opinion between Republican and Democrat. The three families with whom we spend the duration of At the Ready, two of whom straddle the border to Juárez, are representative of many thousands more.

We share in proud moments, difficult decisions and heartbreak with them – and the level of trust Crow evidently developed with those onscreen pays dividends and is testament to her as a compassionate filmmaker. Special mention should also go to Adrian Quesada, whose evocative musical compositions feature shimmering vibrato guitar refrains that resonate across the stunning tequila sunrises and sunsets over the Franklin Mountains. Even classroom debates see peers disagree on building walls, whether real or figurative, and how to handle what then President Trump called an influx of people that was “like an invasion.”

It is invigorating and encouraging to see young Americans engage so knowledgeably and wilfully about politics, to see through lies and inflammatory rhetoric; to disagree with their tutors on issues that will affect their future and that of their country. Ultimately, personal decisions must be made. Would you be able to handle the brutal act of deporting children back to Mexico if your job required it?

Is repairing ties with your father, unable to live with you in El Paso due to drug offences, of greater importance than immediately jumping into a career? Surely working out who you are, focusing on yourself and your sexuality should come first? In the end, the Border Challenge Competition – a kind of Sicario-lite assault role playing – for which the team has trained so hard for throughout, is less important than what that process and their teachers have taught along the way. The American Dream giveth but also taketh away and At the Ready brings its harsh reality, the brutality of policy and luck of regime change into the everyday. The film isn’t without hope, but it lifts the lid of an ugly truth and asks the tough questions needed.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place between the 28 January to 3 February. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63